On a rain-soaked May morning in Dubuque, Monsignor Thomas Zinkula opened the door to St. Pius X Seminary.
He led visitors to his office and his tidy desk, which held a cellphone and a book, “Patience with God,” by Thomas Halik.
Zinkula, 60, will this week become the ninth bishop in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Davenport. A native of Mount Vernon, Iowa, he is replacing Bishop Martin Amos.
The bishop-to-be is spiritual, but realistic.
The book from his desk, “Patience with God,” addresses how God requires humans to carry doubt in their hearts, because doubts produce maturity. Patience is the primary difference between faith and atheism, it concludes.
"This book is a great read,” Zinkula said. "The author speaks to the issue of belief and non-belief in today’s world. He got the wheels in my mind turning.”
Zinkula comes from a very Catholic background. His family settled near Mount Vernon generations ago, and he and his siblings attended public schools in town. At church, he was an altar server and didn't miss weekly Mass.
He didn't envision himself as a priest, however. The ones he knew "were always older people," he said. Even so, he once received a letter from the bishop, inviting him to a special program for Catholic vocations. Although he didn't do anything at the time, "the seed was planted," he said.
And he still has that letter.
A priest among priests
Zinkula went to Cornell College, where he continued his successful high school football career. He majored in economics and mathematics and was an actuary for a year before entering law school at the University of Iowa.
He dated during that period and entertained no thoughts of entering the priesthood.
But one night in October 1985, he surprised himself.
"Boom!" he said. "I woke up with the idea of becoming a priest."
He paced his apartment in Cedar Rapids and resolved not to tell anyone of the experience. He was 28 years old and "a little wiser than I was in college." Ultimately, he contacted the bishop's office and took the steps necessary to become a priest.
His position at St. Pius has been Zinkula's dream job for three years. As rector of the seminary, he counsels more than a dozen young men who one day will be priests, too.
In May, he permitted a Quad-City Times reporter and photographer to spend a day getting to know him. But some things were private.
For instance, seminary student Eric Zenisek had an appointment with Zinkula that morning.
“He has some concerns,” he said of the seminarian before the pair retreated into a 15-minute private session.
He left the meeting with parting advice: “Pray, that’s what I do,” he offered before heading to the chapel at Vianney House for midday prayers.
From a pew, holding a missal (liturgical book), Zinkula declared, “This is the best room in the house.”
He prayed quietly from the pew.
Zinkula was born a few miles outside Mount Vernon, where his ancestors settled in 1854.
He is one of nine children born to devoted Catholics Robert and Mary Zinkula.
His decorated high school and collegiate football experiences will help him forge a "team approach," he said, in his new role as bishop. Sports taught him, among other things, to be collaborative and consultative.
His law-school experience helped shape him, too, by teaching him to be a critical thinker.
He will look to the church's teachings and traditions, of course, in making decisions for the Davenport Diocese. On social-justice issues, he referred to Pope Francis and how he frequently refers to reaching into the margins of society and ministering to people there.
“I think that approach is following in the footsteps of Jesus,” Zinkula said.
'Lucky to have him'
Before heading to Davenport, there were goodbyes to be said in Dubuque.
One such event was a luncheon with more than 100 friends and supporters.
“We’ll be tight today, but we are within fire code,” said Lynn Osterhaus, director of the Dubuque archdiocese and organizer of the farewell event.
Members of The Witness newspaper staff were among the last guests to arrive, having put the weekly diocesan paper to bed early in order to attend.
“I’ve spent 26 years bouncing around here,” the monsignor said in his opening remarks. “There are lots of memories."
After leading a blessing, the athlete in him emerged, urging, “Let’s go for it!”
When the group was asked to share stories about Zinkula, attendee Dan Rohner offered one: The grounds around the archdiocese were cleaned one spring and Rohner spotted Zinkula up on a ladder, using a chainsaw to trim a tree. Slowly, the monsignor fell backward, holding the chainsaw up in the air, away from his body.
“He looked around to see if anyone had seen him and then he climbed back up on the ladder and started again," Rohner said, smiling.
No one appeared to be in a hurry to leave the luncheon, and several volunteered their opinions of the departing monsignor.
“He’s very genuine,” said Rohner, director of leadership development and pastoral planning in the archdiocese. "The monsignor does not seek out the limelight.”
Zinkula is personable and well-liked, said Peggy Lovrien, director of worship. He knows how to relax and to laugh.
“We all need to say special thanks," said Sister Lynn Fangman, director of stewardship. "He’s a great guy, and the loss to our diocese is a blessing to Davenport.”
Although the bishop-to-be is “God-centered,” he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, she said.
Osterhaus said she was nervous about planning the farewell lunch. She chose mitre hats, worn by bishops, as the centerpieces.
“He has a logical and methodical way to solve concerns and provide spiritual inspiration," she said of Zinkula. "He’s wonderful with the seminarians.”
Joanne Pohland and Julie Johnson had thoughts to share, too.
“When my mom died, he told me no one is ever too old to be an orphan,” said Pohland, who directs catechism services in the archdiocese. “The people of Davenport are lucky to have him as a spiritual leader.”
Johnson, of Cedar Rapids, is the mother of PGA golfer Zach Johnson. She said she has known the monsignor for years and called him “dynamic and energetic” and in tune with the world.
Being called up
The monsignor earns his energy.
In early April, 11 days before his 60th birthday, he was out running when a message was left on his phone: He was chosen by Pope Francis to serve as the ninth bishop of the Davenport Diocese.
Zinkula thought it was a joke.
It was, after all, Palm Sunday weekend, and he was on retreat with seminarians, who are known as practical jokers. Maybe they were goofing around?
He returned the call and was stunned to hear the news. He gave himself 24 hours to respond and consulted with Archbishop Michael Jackels. He also prayed, a lot.
The announcement was made in Davenport on April 19, his birthday.
The monsignor offered an impromptu seminary tour, showing off the large kitchen, still under construction, a recreation room, along with the exercise room. The latter contains treadmills and an elliptical machine, and Zinkula said his aim is to encourage good health habits among the seminarians, all men between the ages of 18 and 32.
Early in the afternoon, back in his office, Zinkula had time to talk. Trained as a canon lawyer, he has experience with the clergy sex abuse scandal.
The scandal hit Davenport especially hard. Bishop Martin Amos was serving in his native Cleveland, Ohio, when he was asked in 2006 to be the new bishop of Davenport. Two days prior, the Davenport Diocese had become the fourth in the United States to declare bankruptcy because of the scandal.
Zinkula’s tone became serious as he talked about it, saying he was part of a three-judge panel that considered the cases of a half-dozen priests on church trial for abuse.
“We will stay on top of this, always, and never forget,” he vowed.
Although he feels prepared for the upcoming promotion, he expects a challenge.
“Now is the time to be creative in our faith, and that’s exciting,” he said.
Later in the afternoon, Zinkula changed into workout clothes and headed to the new exercise room.
He hooked up his iPod and queued up a podcast, “Word on Fire,” by Bishop Robert Barron.
In it, Barron speaks on faith and culture. One example is episode 73, “Caesar, the Dude and a Serious Man,” in which Barron talks to filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. This is a follow-up to previous podcasts with the brothers, whom the bishop calls “arguably the greatest filmmakers of our time.”
Barron describes biblical motifs in three films: “A Serious Man,” “The Big Lebowski” and “Hail, Caesar!”
Time to teach
The rain began in earnest in Dubuque in the afternoon.
Shortly after 4 p.m., Zinkula was in the Loras College classroom, along with 16 students from the seminary. They are officially seminarians but also college students, he said.
The men pray: “Glory to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, as it is now and ever shall be.”
It was the last formal conference of the school year, said the Rev. Jerry Kopacek, director of spiritual formation at the seminary. He shares teaching duties with the monsignor.
In the Program for Pastoral Formation, Kopacek was handing out literature.
“Let’s unfold these a bit,” he said of the questions, which presented common scenarios the students are likely to face.
Zinkula sat quietly for the most part, smiling occasionally or adding something to the discussion.
As students talked about how to deliver a gospel during a church service, student Nick Stark said, “Back in the day, I was told I talked too fast, and I fixed that.”
"Preaching styles will vary,” Kopacek said.
Zinkula added that he is concerned about students who are too theatrical.
“You may put the emphasis on the person, not the word,” he warned.
Making the move
Before the move to Davenport, Zinkula wasn't sure what his living arrangements would be. But he has experienced institutional living for years and said he knows the value of simple living.
In addition to his degrees from Cornell College and the University of Iowa, Zinkula earned advanced degrees in theology and canon law from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and from St. Paul University, Ottawa, Canada.
In 2011-12, he went on sabbatical to India, where he met with a Hindu swami, visited lepers in a leper colony and celebrated Mass in Chennai, India, at the Basilica of St. Thomas.
He appreciates different faith traditions, he said, working with people of Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox and Protestant faiths, attending conferences and events with all faith groups and finding subjects to discuss in common.
“I’ve always been interested in ecumenism,” he said. "You are more favorable to other faiths, and you feel stronger about your own."